Jailed Pakistani ex-PM delivers rare AI-crafted speech to online election rally


A screenshot of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's virtual rally as seen on the YouTube channel of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Dec 18, 2023.

The opposition party of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan made history in national politics this week by broadcasting an artificial intelligence-generated video message from the imprisoned leader at an online election rally.

Sunday’s rare virtual rally was live-streamed on YouTube and other social media platforms, drawing more than 1.5 million views. However, the event was marred by internet disruptions, with access to major social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, and X, formerly known as Twitter, remaining blocked for several hours for users in Pakistan.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, said it staged the “virtual power show” because the party faces a state-backed crackdown on physical gatherings and a blackout on national mainstream media despite government pledges it would allow all political parties to take part in the February general elections.

“The party that has the support of 75% of the people is being kept out of the electoral process,” Khan claimed in his AI-generated video speech. His party said it was produced from a written version he had approved from prison.

“PTI is not allowed to hold worker conventions or gatherings. Our people are being kidnapped, and their families are also being harassed,” said the 71-year-old former Pakistani leader. He urged his supporters to turn out in large numbers on the election day set for February 8.

Sunday’s internet disruptions and the ongoing crackdown on PTI workers have fueled transparency concerns about the upcoming national elections.

The state-run Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said it was investigating the connectivity disruptions while the caretaker government, led by Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, did not respond to allegations it had ordered the interruptions.

U.K.-based NetBlocks, an independent global internet monitor promoting digital rights, cybersecurity, and governance, confirmed the disrupted internet connectivity in Pakistan.

“Metrics show major social media platforms were restricted in #Pakistan for ~7 hours on Sunday evening during an online political gathering; the incident is consistent with previous instances of internet censorship targeting opposition leader Imran Khan and his party PTI,” NetBlocks said on X Monday.

Critics cautioned against using generative AI images and videos in political campaigning, noting that the technology has mainly been used to spread disinformation worldwide.

“What I fear is that PTI may just have opened a can of worms by promoting the use of generative AI in Pakistani politics,” said Asad Baig, the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, a leading media development and watchdog organization in Pakistan.

“With little to no information literacy in the country, I feel the Pakistani population is very susceptible to falling for AI-based disinformation. Suppose another similar but fake AI-generated video of Imran Khan comes to light, but this time with an inciteful message, imagine the consequences,” Baig told VOA in written comments.

Haroon Baloch at Bytes for All, a Pakistan-based human rights organization promoting the use of technology for sustainable development, democracy, and social justice, said that PTI’s attempt to rally support for the upcoming election through the use of AI technology is “undoubtedly innovative” but could prove challenging in the run-up to the elections.

“PTI, as a popular political force, is not being allowed to actively participate in upcoming general elections, which is an infringement of their constitutional right. Nonetheless, the use of synthetic media will open the floodgates of deep fakes, and they may influence the poll results massively,” said Baloch.

The crackdown on Khan's party began following government allegations that its supporters assaulted army installations during anti-government protests in May this year. It has led to the arrest of scores of PTI leaders and workers, with some facing trials in controversial military courts.

While many PTI members remain in jail and await trial, dozens of others have been freed after publicly denouncing Khan, quitting his party, or joining other groups allegedly under military pressure.

According to public opinion polls, the jailed former prime minister remains the country’s most popular politician, and his party is rated as Pakistan's most considerable political force.

“Cutting off access in Pakistan to the opposition PTI party's online rally will backfire because many months of crackdowns on the party have done nothing to dent its popularity, and also because PTI has such a large support base outside Pakistan. Predictable but wrongheaded move,” Michael Kugelman, director South Asia Institute at Washington’s Wilson Center, wrote on X.

Khan, 71, was removed from power through a parliamentary no-confidence motion in April 2022, a move he rejected as illegal. The deposed leader alleged the United States toppled his government in collusion with the Pakistani military, charges Washington and Islamabad deny.

The cricket star-turned-prime minister has been in a political showdown with the powerful Pakistan military since his ouster, blaming the institution’s repeated interventions in civilian matters for a lack of democratic and economic progress in the country.

Khan has faced dozens of lawsuits filed by authorities, which he claims to be a ploy by the military to prevent his comeback to power because of his advocacy for an independent foreign policy for Pakistan, one free from the influence of the United States.